All entries for Tuesday 14 November 2006

November 14, 2006

Claudia Schaefer on Kahlo in Context

Writing about web page

The body is a site where the political and the aesthetic interpret the material. — Elizabeth A. Meese (Crossing the Double Cross)

Kahlo in Context

Frida KahloFrom ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’

Schaefer begins by pointing out that Kahlo is in a tradition of artists concerned with medical imagery including ‘wounds, operations, abortions, birth, and amputations’ (3). Schaefer believes that this emerges from the period of examination following the Mexican Revolution in which Kahlo lived. Schaefer also notes ‘the use of the personalized point of view of the female victim/patient’ rather than imagery of objective science. The body is not an object for the male gaze, but ‘a physically and psychologically naked, conscious presence seen through her own eyes and functioning as a valid focal point of artistic “narrativisation” ’ (4).

None of Kahlo’s paintings, whether overtly ‘autobiographical self-portraits or only indirectly self-referential, portray possessive/possessed, dominated objects of pornography (clothed or unclothed, as befits the scopophilic perspective of the viewer), nor do they reinforce the codified myths of Mexican society’s reverence for the virginal woman. On the contrary, what they show is a centered [sic] or framed series of real, aging, often inform, almost palpable, wounded or mutilated bodies, thus reversing a process of “silencing,” “banishment,” and “marginality generally imposed on the female body is modern discourse. (4).

Kahlo also creates a desiring “I” which Schaefer sees in terms of Jean-Pierre Guillerme’s nineteenth century article on art and medicine and his epigraph which demands self-consciousness for the whole human being:

On a beaucoup trop oublié les deux éléments qui s’ajoutent à la biologie pour que l’HOMO BIOLOGICUS devienne un être humain. C’est-à-dire la conscience de la sexualité et de la mort.

It has been too often forgotten that there are two elements that are added to biology in order that HOMO BIOLOGICUS BECOME A HUMAN BEING. Namely, the consciousness {both} of sexuality and of death.

Sexuality and death are two of Kahlo’s major concerns according to Schaefer. Kahlo deals with these themes by ‘ studying [the body] piece by piece within the context of the concurrent expression of life functions and death functions’ (5). The body is both ;an object of scientific interest’ and ‘an intimate object of sacrifice’ (5). Schaefer believes that after her accident on a trolley in Mexico City in 1925, Kahlo developed ‘a hypersensitivity to or hyperconsciousness of life as constantly inhabited by remainders of death’, such as the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities (5). Sexuality is a means of communicating and breaking through this deadening hyperconsciousness. Yet quoting Frederic Jameson in …, Schaefer also affirms that such personal narratives also represent the situation of the country of Mexico as a whole and as a third-world country.

Thinking historically for a moment, Schaefer notes the feudal morals that dominated the pre-revolutionary Mexico of Porfirio Díaz. This society had ‘the natural right of possession of women and land (both as property)’ (5). After the revolution, a new society was being constructed but there was conflict between the influences of ‘the United States immediately to the north, and the pull of its own historical tradition’ (6). Schafer refers to Juan García Ponce who sees in Mexico’s search for identity a romantic quest in which the protagonists try to unite tradition and economic revolutions. Although nation-makers in Mexico believes in progress and democracy, their attitudes to women did not change radically. Women were stuck firmly in tradición rather than revolución . According to Schaefer, women were thought of in three categories: ‘the doll-like beauty, the subjugated wife and mother, and the prostitute’ (7). Women who spoke up for themselves were a threat to the male-ordered society that dominated Mexico.

In the art world, women were often silent playing the role of discreet wife, while the men were the professionals. Women who did dabble maintained their art ‘at the level of a trivial, private hobby’ (7). The subject for their art was the private sphere. In relation to Kahlo, Schaefer writes: ‘Kahlo’s dolls and abortions can be seen as a dramatic and tragic parody of this cultural prescription for women’s art’ (7). Schaefer believes that Kahlo’s paintings would have been all the more fascinating for her contemporaries, because the intimacy of women’s bodies was not represented in the public sphere. The stuff of everyday life is reproduced in a tabloid-esque style and Kahlo exploits ‘the public’s ambiguity towards such representations’ (8). Like Posada, Kahlo asks the viewer to confront his or her own fear and the trick is in the way that she forces us to realise how fascinated we are by the grotesque.

Schaefer refers here to Mexican morbid curiosity and the mummified corpses of Guanajuato. I visited Guanajuato in 2004 and saw these ‘mummies’, which are actually bodies upturned by a mudslide and preserved by the minerals in the soil. The people of Guanajuato decided to put the bodies on display because they were so surprised by how well they had been preserved and they are still on display today, including the mummy of a foetus. Yet Schaefer notes that even these mummies are hidden in tunnels below the city and one enters by invitation.

Schaefer compares this to Kahlo and our knowledge of her ‘life-and-death struggles’ as well as our awareness that her body is on display in much of her work. However, Schaefer states: ‘It is not the object itself that is consumed by the spectator/intruder but an interpretation of it based on her own vision and point of view, which are conditioned by cultural values’ (9). Kahlo’s work shocks with its exposure of the body and although it uses domestic subjects, it is in no way domestic.

From the 20s to the 40s, there was a strong interest in indigenous Mexicans and ‘lo mexicano’, but women’s rights were not being extended. There were new activist groups and projects:
• the Ateneo de la Juvetud (Young People’s Athenaeum) which sought liberal ideals in literature and philosophy;
• and the book La raza cósmica circulated José Vasconcelos’ ideas who organized the mural projects as education secretary.

Schaefer argues against the interpretation of Kahlo’s work in relation to the Surrelaist movement of Breton et al and prefers to consider Kahlo in the category of magical realism.

Schaefer gives a brief outline of the genre of magical realism making the following points:
• that Franz Roh invented the term in relation to the visual arts in Europe;
• that American continental narratives appropriated the term (Arturo Uslar Pietri, Angel Flores, Carpentier);
• that the genre ‘glosses over social and economic discrepancies in favor [sic] of promoting an “exotic” artistic whole’ (11);
• and that the split between pre-Columbian culture and European ideas in Mexico meets Jameson’s criteria for production of magical realism.

So Kahlo’s work has a number of tensions: death and sexuality, nation-making and the woman problem, pre-Columbian culture and European capitalism, the real and the imaginary.

But what about her work as an autobiographical discourse? Schaefer mentions her self portraits of the 1930s and 40s and she notes that they were painted during a period when Mexican society was ‘cultivating the individual, bourgeois personality through the movie-star network with its wide-screen projection of illusions for vicarious social fulfillment’ (12). Schaefer mentions stars like Emilio Fernández, Mario Moreno, María Félix and Dolores del Río and she suggests that ‘Kahlo’s self-portraits utilize and play on consumer society’s reification of the face as the icon of feminine beauty’ (12).

The mask, whether literal or figurative, covers the ‘shadowy’ space behind it, which is composed of an uncharted and unconquered terrain that she suggestively exploits and explodes. This tantalizing lure of the ‘exotic’ or the Other is represented by Kahlo through the cracks and fissures in the mask that promise insight or revelation but that neither exhaust nor ever completely reveal, leaving intact a certain element of the unknown – a Hollywood –type mystique, as it were – after the viewer’s gaze has been enticed to draw nearer. On this surface, then, Kahlo unites cultural and individual fantasies of knowledge/self-knowledge in one problematic space of attraction and concealment (masquerade) in a perpetual cycle of gaze and counter-gaze. Her self portraits reproduce this point of confrontation and re-evoke its enticing closure with only the cracks for the observer to peer voyeuristically through, perhaps simultaneously conjuring up an image of the outsider’s looking at Mexico through the spaces of the so-called cortina de nopal (cactus curtain). (12-13)

Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press, 1992. 3-36.


Facebook Widget

The Midnight Heart

“Zona de plagas donde la dormida come / lentamente / su corazón de medianoche” – Alejandra Pizarnik

Night ramblings of insomnia, and day ramblings for the sleep deprived.

Search this blog

November 2006

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
Oct |  Today  | Dec
      1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30         



my read shelf:
Zoe's book recommendations, favorite quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)

Red Room

Visit me in the Red Room

The Secret

Book Cover

Blog archive



Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)

Comment Policy

Feel free to leave a comment on this blog, but I want to let readers know that I only accept comments that are linked to a valid homepage, e-mail or blog. I don’t accept anonymous comments. If a conversation is going to work, I want to know who it is that I’m talking to. If you really have a good reason for remaining anonymous, drop me a line instead by e-mail.

Most recent comments

  • Yes, you're right it does make you think and I know what he means. I also like the fact that it's su… by Sue on this entry
  • True, I hope so too, but it makes you think! by on this entry
  • He takes a very pessimistic view of things. I think the human spirit will prevail. I don't see the p… by Sue on this entry
  • Hi Zoe, do you know the glass dresses made by the artist Diana Dias Leao? They're not meant to be wo… by redbotinki on this entry
  • We're having some technical issues with this blog post, so please bear with me! by on this entry

Favourite blogs

Spanish Daily Word

Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder